Just imagine there was a simple way you could transform your life in just 30 days, from losing weight to looking younger, improving your energy levels and mental outlook, sleeping better and even enjoying a more satisfying love life.
Well, there is. Of course, as with everything, there is a small price to pay. In this case it’s alcohol, but as I realised myself when I stopped drinking for good, it’s worth the sacrifice of giving up your favourite tipple, whether that’s gin and tonic, glasses of sauvignon blanc — or red wine, as it was for me. Here are all the day-by-day reasons why stopping drinking for a month is an experiment definitely worth trying . . . and how to get through it.
Day One: The downward spiral
It’s likely that you spent the earlier part of this week enjoying a tipple or two, especially if you’ve been planning a dry January. But have you ever wondered why nothing makes you feel as good as that first glass?
The reason is that wine artificially stimulates an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This controls the output of dopamine, responsible for desire and craving, and serotonin, which is responsible for feelings of satiety and inhibition.
Author Annie Grace (pictured) shared advice for withdrawing from alcohol for a 30 day experiment this January
In a healthy brain there is a delicate balance between the two, but alcohol throws that balance out. The first glass causes lots of dopamine to be released into your system, making you want more of whatever gave you that pleasure.
But at the same time, because the pleasure centre of your brain has been artificially stimulated, the brain seeks to regain the correct balance. To achieve this it sends out a chemical ‘downer’ called dynorphin, which suppresses feelings of euphoria — so as the effects of that first glass wear off, your sense of wellbeing falls to below where it was when you began drinking.
But the dopamine is still working, making you crave what made you feel good. The answer? Another glass of wine, of course, which sets the cycle going once more. But there are ever-decreasing results.
As the body tries to regain its balance, it releases adrenaline and cortisol — the so-called ‘stress’ hormone. So you now have to cross an even bigger gap to get above that baseline of pleasure. And this surfeit of stress hormones outlasts the good feelings, which is why you often wake feeling anxious after a night out.
Day Two: Remember, ANY alcohol is harmful
If you need some motivation for the dry days ahead, consider the ground-breaking study reported in The Lancet last year that stated there is no safe level of drinking. Even a single drink, even on occasion, is detrimental to health. Any reduction in alcohol consumption lowers your risk for cancer.
Day Three: Alcohol actually tastes vile
Many people say they drink because they like the taste of their favourite alcohol. But if you think back to your first experience of alcohol, the chances are you hated it. You just forced yourself to acquire a taste for it because those around you told you it was a good thing.
There is a growing body of evidence that if alcohol didn’t make us drunk, we wouldn’t drink it. Certainly neat ethanol — which is what alcohol is — doesn’t taste good at all.
Annie says even just one glass of wine or beer can cause disrupt sleep, but after five nights without alcohol, most people sleep better (file image)
Day Four: Flip your mindset
It may take a week or longer for your body to rebalance after you stop drinking.
During that time you could experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, irritability and anxiety. What helped me get through was flipping my mind-set. Instead of seeing these symptoms as punishment for a bad habit, I chose to see them as signs of progress that my body was healing itself.
Day Five: Sleep better
Anyone who has over-indulged knows that a terrible night’s sleep inevitably follows.
In fact, any alcohol, even just a glass of wine or beer, will disrupt sleep because it produces the same chemical effects to a greater or lesser degree.
When I gave up alcohol I talked about it endlessly and everyone pitied my husband for having to put up with me. My advice now? Keep the sharing to a minimum
The culprits are the adrenaline and cortisol produced to help your body regain its chemical balance. Unfortunately for sleep, these stimulants last longer than the depressive effects of alcohol.
The chemical disruption to your brain is why you wake up after five hours of deep sleep and can’t get back to sleep.
The good news is, most people find they sleep better than ever after the fifth alcohol-free night.
Day Six: Don’t change everything at once
Feeling tempted to overhaul your life all at once? You think that as you’re taking a break from alcohol, you may as well quit sugar and start running five miles a day. But trying to make too many changes rarely works in the long term. Revisit the other goals when your 30 days is over.
Annie suggests using driving or having a meeting the next day as an excuse not to drink when friends try to tempt you (file image)
Day Seven: Remember it’s just an experiment
Well done, you’ve gone a week without a drink! But it may not feel like such an achievement if you’re feeling resentful that you can’t enjoy your favourite tipple. Remind yourself that it’s just an experiment to see how you feel after a month without alcohol. You’re not banning it for the rest of your life. Just have that drink next month.
Days Eight and Nine: Stick to your guns but don’t become a no-booze bore
Friends who are still drinking will try to tempt you. The social pressures can be very hard to tackle.
If you don’t want to tell the truth, try ‘I’ve got a big meeting tomorrow and I want to stay clear-headed’, or ‘I’ve got to drive tonight so I can’t drink’.
Nobody wants to feel you’re judging them for having a drink. When I gave up alcohol, to begin with I was an antialcohol evangelist, talking about the benefits at every opportunity, and everyone pitied my husband for having to put up with me. I’ve learnt it’s better to keep the sharing to a minimum.
Day ten: Dealing with sugar cravings
If you’re experiencing more sugar cravings than usual, this is quite normal when you stop drinking. Alcoholic drinks contain quite a bit of sugar that you’re now not getting — and secondly, like drinking alcohol, eating sugar produces huge levels of dopamine, so it’s the obvious alternative if your brain is seeking out a substitute dopamine hit.
Annie warns giving up alcohol may come with more sugar cravings as the brain seeks out a substitute dopamine hit (file image)
Day 11: Distraction
Your subconscious is childlike — it won’t stop pestering if it thinks there’s a chance you’ll give in. If you’re used to holding a glass of wine in your hand during a night out, carry on holding a glass when you’re being social — just fill it with tonic water or lemonade. Often something as simple as that is enough to satisfy your subconscious toddler.
Day 12: Ask the questions
Making small talk can be excruciating without a drink to oil our social wheels. But an easy way to engage people without feeling awkward is to ask lots of questions. Get the other person talking about themself and it won’t feel like hard work.
Day 13: Embrace the free time
If drinking used to be a major activity for you, you may have more time on your hands. You risk feeling bored, so make a list of activities you’ve always wanted to try and give at least some of them a go this month.
Annie suggests being curious with alternatives to alcohol such as indulging with a cup of tea and a biscuit (file image)
Day 14: Be curious
It has been a fortnight now and perhaps you’re tempted to have just one glass after a long week.
The obvious thing is to try to ignore these feelings. Don’t. Instead, ask yourself ‘What is it that I think alcohol will do to make this moment better?’ Then ask yourself ‘Is that true?’
You may surprise yourself with the realisation that a cup of tea and a biscuit, or relaxing in a deep bath with a book, will make you feel just as good.
Day 15: A bad day at work
At some point in the month, it’s highly likely you’ll have a day at work when you feel under pressure.
If you handle work stress by drinking, as I did, then every time this happens you’ll probably trigger a psychological craving for alcohol. So while your conscious mind knows you’re not drinking at the moment, your subconscious won’t have got the memo.
You have to find another way to reduce stress. Many studies have shown exercise is a great way to do this. Once those endorphins are released, the stress and cravings subside.
Annie recommends practicing meditation and mindfulness to relieve from stress (file image)
Day 16: Mental exercise works too
Mindfulness and meditation are as effective as physical exercise for reducing stress.
Day 17: No winter snuffles
Your immune system is getting a boost if you’re not drinking. Alcohol suppresses the immune system by disrupting production of cytokines, which alert our bodies to harmful intruders. It also has an impact on production of the white blood cells that go on to fight infection.
Day 18: Pernicious parenting messages
It’s no wonder 40 per cent of women think they need a drink to handle being a parent when you consider all the messages we’re bombarded with that associate parenting with alcohol.
It could be blogging mums joking about gin at the end of the day, or jokey fridge magnets or internet memes with messages like: ‘Dear children, you whine, I wine.’
But it’s a stupid message when you think about it. Of course drinking doesn’t make parenting easier. It can only make it harder.
Day 19: Your skinny jeans fit again
It’s common knowledge that alcohol is surprisingly high in calories — a large glass of white wine is like eating an ice-cream and a pint of beer is the same as a large slice of pizza.
But what you may not know is that because alcohol is easily absorbed, it is more quickly stored as fat than the excess calories from sugar, carbohydrates, protein or even fat itself. It also affects weight gain in another way, contributing to very low blood sugar levels, which can lead to eating lots of high-calorie foods to compensate.
Annie revealed alcohol is easily stored as fat and is surprisingly high in calories (file image)
In other words, because your liver is focused on detoxifying alcohol, it doesn’t properly process the food you eat or the energy stores in your muscles into fuel for the body, so your blood sugar levels fall and hunger sets in.
Day 20: The power of gratitude
It sounds cheesy but if you feel that life is less interesting without a drink in the evening or at the weekend, keeping a ‘gratitude diary’ of things you are thankful for really does help remind you of all the many positives in your life.
Day 21: Forget willpower
You’re into the third week without drinking and, while you feel and look healthier, the novelty has well and truly worn off. Don’t try to rely on sheer willpower to get you through the last ten days. New research suggests this is a finite resource, not a muscle that can be built up.
Instead, write down a few facts about alcohol that you know are true — such as how you energetic you feel without drinking — and keep them in your wallet or mobile phone case, to pull out when you feel you might give in.
Calming the dissonance in your mind works better than trying to be gritty about getting through.
Day 22: Enjoy better sex
You may find you not only have more energy when you’re not drinking, but a spring in your step in other ways.
Drinking as few as two alcoholic drinks a day has been found to reduce testosterone levels not only in men but in women too.
Annie says hundreds of respondents to a survey claim sober sex is better as you’re more in touch with your body when you’re not drinking (file image)
Furthermore, because alcohol is a depressant, it affects libido by interfering with the parts of the nervous system that are essential for arousal and orgasm, including circulation and the sensitivity of nerve endings. As the amount of alcohol in the body increases, the brain becomes less able to sense sexual stimulation.
Don’t just take my word for it. I have surveyed hundreds of people who have experimented with going alcohol-free and the truth is, sober sex is better sex.
Your brain is receiving the full, unimpeded information from your senses. You are literally more in touch with your body when you’re not drinking. The signals that your nerves send are more powerful — which means orgasms are stronger and it’s easier to have one (or many)!
Day 23: What’s fun?
We associate alcohol with celebration and fun, but think back to the last time you had fun drinking. Think about when the fun began. The chances are it was actually before you started drinking.
Because I usually drank after work, my fun began the minute I walked out of the office. It was actually anticipation of the weekend ahead that gave me pleasure, not the wine.
Day 24: Looking younger
Hopefully by now you can see a difference in the mirror. Without alcohol you truly do look different. Alcohol not only causes premature loss of collagen and elasticity, but your face is more likely to look red and swollen because alcohol is a vasodilator — it expands blood vessels.
Lastly, the most obvious difference is that alcohol is also a major source of dehydration, contributing to dry, scaly and cracked skin.
Annie (pictured) advises reminding yourself that when you’re not drinking your heart is healthier as drinking large amounts can affect the system that regulates your heartbeat
Day 25: Thank your body
Today I want you to take a minute just to celebrate the incredible miracle that is you!
Day 26: Sharper emotions
When you’ve been drinking you feel a bit fuzzy and numb, whether it’s a night out, dinner with your partner or just watching TV. Relish the emotional highs and lows of not drinking.
Day 27: Enjoy a healthier heart
Remind yourself that when you’re not drinking it’s much healthier for your heart.
Drinking large amounts, even on rare occasions, can affect the electrical system that regulates your heartbeat. This may lead the heart to not beat hard enough, which can cause blood to pool and form clots, or beat too fast, which doesn’t allow the chambers to fill with blood properly.
Studies have shown that alcohol weakens the heart muscle so it sags and stretches, making it impossible for it to contract effectively. Over time this means it can’t effectively transport enough oxygen to organs and tissues.
Day 28: You’re nearly there
But because you’ve done so well so far, it’s tempting to give in a few days early. Try visualisation to help you get to the finish. For example, it’s easier not drinking if you visualise saying no to a glass of wine before you go out.
Annie says about 8 per cent of people who experiment with Dry January decide to stop drinking permanently (file image)
Day 29: Tough love
Your month is nearly up, so now is the time to start thinking about the future. Think back to why you wanted to do this in the first place and what has improved for you in the past month, whether it’s that you’re sleeping better or your clothes feel looser, for instance.
When do you particularly miss having a drink? Do you really need to start all over again?
Day 30: Congratulations!
You’ve made it. If you have decided to stop drinking permanently, great! About 8 per cent of people do this at the end of Dry January because they feel so good.
If you have decided you want to keep drinking and feel you can do so in moderation, also great! Whatever decision you make is good. You can always change your mind.
After all, the most important thing to remember is that you are the boss.
Adapted by Clare Goldwin from The Alcohol Experiment: 30 days to cut down, take control or give up for good, by Annie Grace, published by HQ at £12.99. © Annie Grace 2018.
To order a copy for £10.39 (offer valid to 8/1/19; p&p free on orders over £15) visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.